Happy New Year! Happier times to follow in Connellsville ...
EDITOR'S NOTE: Today, the Daily Courier continues “The Way We Were,” followed by “Where We're Headed,” a series of articles tracing Connellsville's past through the eyes of residents who lived it. From the 1930s through the New Millennium, “The Way We Were” will give a human perspective of Connellsville's boomtown years as well as its hard times and will end with a flourish, focusing on good news — we hope — for the future of our town in particular and Southwestern Pennsylvania in general. The series ends today.
Four Januaries ago, Marilyn Weaver took the oath of office as a Connellsville councilwoman.
Involved in many civic affairs, she chose not to run again, but believes that the city's future looks much better now than it did when she moved back to town from Ohio in 2002 after working for three decades at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (John) Glenn Research Center.
“It was a dream career,” she noted.
“It was just time to move on (from city council),” added Weaver, 72, who serves as executive director of Wesley Health Center on South Pittsburgh Street. “I have lots of hope for the city and will stay involved. I hope the new council and mayor (Greg Lincoln) will build on the things that the outgoing administration accomplished. I wish them all well.”
Weaver was one of five people who returned to Connellsville after leaving the area for awhile.
Home to stay
Two others interviewed were classmates at Connellsville Area High School: Daily Courier accountant Charlene Williams and Susan McCarthy, owner of McCarthy Public Relations. They are both 57 years old.
Williams moved to Philadelphia when she was young, but returned home because she missed Connellsville.
McCarthy worked in Washington, D.C., before moving back to Southwestern Pennsylvania. Her P.R. business in Connellsville is thriving. “I've had a lot of support from local businesses in and around Fayette County,” she said.
James McIntire, 68, and his wife, Linda, returned to the Connellsville area in 2006 after living in Florida for more than 30 years, where McIntire retired from a shipping company called Birdsall Inc.
The Rev. Bob Lubic, 48, who grew up in Connellsville and graduated from Geibel Catholic High School, was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1996 from St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe. The Greensburg Diocese assigned him to several churches before he was called home to Connellsville in March 2012 as pastor of Immaculate Conception, St. Rita's and St. John the Evangelist parishes.
Lubic and McCarthy said the future looks great for the city. They said they can see positive things happening.
McCarthy feels that local residents' attitudes are changing for the better after several decades of economic hard times.
“When I left Connellsville, Troutman's Department Store was still here; there still was a downtown. When I returned, I noticed the West Side seemed more developed than downtown, which had only a handful of businesses,” McCarthy said, noting that new businesses have sprung up in the area, especially since the June 2013 completion of the Great Allegheny Passage trail between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Md.
Trail: Positive impact
Yough River Trail Council maintains the bike trail from Layton to the north and Bruner Run (near Ohiopyle State Park), a distance of more than 20 miles. McIntire and his wife live along the Youghiogheny River near Adelaide, Dunbar Township. A staunch trail supporter, he believes the trail will continue to impact Connellsville's economy as more and more hikers and bikers use it.
The McIntires are members of YRTC, which is headed by retired teacher Ted Kovall of Connellsville.
“Working with Ted is great,” said McIntire, who added that since the GAP officially opened this past summer, he has noticed an increase in the number of trail users— and the length of the usage, season-wise.
“There were more bikers later in the year this past fall, and there was an increase of people carrying bike packs,” he said.
More than 340 people reportedly stayed overnight in two wooden Adirondack shelters located behind Martin's supermarket. The wooden lean-tos are free to trail users. They were built as a YRTC project by retired teacher Gary Wandel, who is an active trail council member. Each has a sign-in sheet for visitors — some who used the trail were from places as far away as China, France, Sweden and New Zealand.
‘City looking better'
“I think the future is very bright,” McIntire said. “Town has greatly improved since we moved home in 2006. There are nice, bright pockets of buildings that are eye-appealing, such as the new Amtrak station on Water Street and Molinaro Law Office (which is painted with colorful murals of Connellsville's history) at the corner of Arch and Peach streets.”
Other ongoing projects include renovation of the long-vacant Aaron's Furniture building on North Pittsburgh Street, continued improvements at Carnegie Free Library on South Pittsburgh Street, and the impending construction of a 56-room Cobblestone Hotel on West Side near the bike trail.
Work continues at Connellsville Canteen Café / Indian Creek Valley Model Railroad Museum on West Crawford Avenue, and incoming council members have promised to continue the crackdown on blighted buildings in town, many which have already been torn down.
Williams summed up the meaning of Connellsville as her hometown.
“It's more than a place where you reside…it's comfort, like the peace of a quiet morning or the warmth of a hug. Home is simply a feeling that stays with you always,” she said.
Williams' two grown sons were born eight years apart.
“When my older son was 2, he and I would walk to town every Saturday, eat at Burns Drug Store or McCrory's, and he would buy a small toy,” she recalled. Her younger son never had the experience. “So much had disappeared.”
Williams now has a small grandson who loves playing in the city's parks.
“He loves the pirate ship at Yough River Park and peeking into the window of Col. William Crawford's replica log cabin there. You don't have to spend a lot of money to have a good time,” she pointed out. “Connellsville is rich in history and there are several parks that spark interest.”
Jewel of the Yough
Lubic loves his hometown, which he has proudly and lovingly dubbed, “The Jewel of the Youghiogheny River.”
Prior to returning home in 2012 after being named pastor of Connellsville's three Catholic churches, Lubic served in several parishes in communities in neighboring counties, which are part of the Diocese of Greensburg.
No doubt he witnessed changes in his beloved hometown. But, he, like the others who have returned home, can see and has hope for the city's rebirth.
He sees new businesses coming in and believes it is important that those businesses be supported by local residents.
In fact, Lubic did his part last Christmas — he did all of his Christmas shopping in Connellsville businesses.
Yes, it can be done, he said.
“I'm truly amazed at the number of people in town who are involved to make the city a better place to live,” said McIntire, pointing out the beauty of Southwestern Pennsylvania. “It's like heaven along the river and the trail.”
Added Williams, “The past is that — past. Although I miss what Connellsville once was, I know the only way to prosper is to move forward with a new dream, a new vision and a new expectation of this place I call home.”
Although Weaver admitted many young people continue to move away when they grow up, some are bound to come back home in the future.
“It's the pull of your hometown,” she said. “Some will come back. I always knew I would come home. I love this city.”
The former councilwoman stressed that while city council is supportive of Connellsville's rebirth, they're only five people. “They are the flag-raisers, but involvement by volunteers is what can really make a difference. It's a family thing.”
Williams agreed. “I applaud the dedicated volunteers who work to improve the city. It's going to take all of us working together as a community if we want to make a better tomorrow.”
Laura Szepesi is a contributing writer.